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Masoud: Beating UConn makes win even sweeter (Apr. 2)

Chris Masoud | Monday, April 2, 2012

DENVER – Skylar Diggins jumped into Devereaux Peters’ arms, Muffet McGraw pumped her first and the other team cried. The script couldn’t have been more perfect if McGraw had written it herself.

Well, maybe she would have taken out the 8-0 Huskies run over the final three minutes of regulation to put the Huskies ahead by two. Or perhaps Notre Dame’s inability to put the game out of reach when Stephanie Dolson picked up her fourth foul and headed to the bench with over 17 minutes to go. But that’s why she’s a head coach and not a director, and judging by Notre Dame’s thrilling 83-75 victory over Connecticut in the national semifinals, she’s one of the nation’s best.

With the win, McGraw has now outdueled Geno Auriemma in four of the team’s last five meetings and became the only coach to take down the Huskies in three national semifinals in all three tries.

This victory can be boiled down to a pair of coaching decisions made in the final minutes. Auriemma, concerned with his team’s ability to move on top of Notre Dame’s screen, subbed out 6-foot-3 center Kiah Stokes in favor of the quicker guard Caroline Doty. Helped by her coaching staff, McGraw avoided the temptation of ripping into her team in the game’s final timeout, opting instead to deliver a positive message and an offensive set.

When the Huskies pulled ahead by two with 11 seconds remaining on a pair of free throws, the Irish remained poised. With no timeouts remaining, Diggins ran the length of the court and missed a layup at close range. But senior guard Natalie Novosel outrebounded the Connecticut frontcourt, laying it up to send the game to overtime with three seconds left on the clock.

Diggins and Brittany Mallory took care of the rest, lifting Notre Dame in overtime with a combined three 3-pointers and limiting UConn to just eight points.

These teams don’t like each other, and whether or not the referees realized it, eating their whistles only made things chippier. After the game, Peters said beating the Huskies in the Final Four made it that much sweeter.

Of course it did. After losing to Connecticut in eight straight contests during their first four seasons, Mallory and Peters are doing their best to exact some form of revenge. That’s a dish best served in the Final Four on the sport’s biggest stage.

It should come to no surprise then that the two played their best games of the tournament, with Peters battling Dolson in the post and Mallory hitting clutch 3-pointers in overtime. More importantly, their composure trickled down to the rest of the team, even to Diggins.

The sheer pressure of returning to the national championship is difficult to grasp.

After falling to Texas A&M last season, Notre Dame said all the right things about using that loss as motivation to work harder in the offseason.

But so does every national champion runner-up.

In recent memory, only Butler actually followed up on that promise.

Maybe that’s why Sunday’s win feels almost as satisfying as winning a national title. In taking down its biggest rival on the biggest stage, the Irish overcame the pressure of fulfilling the expectations placed upon them since day one by the rest of the world.

The only expectation left to fulfill in Tuesday’s national championship is the one they put on themselves.